What Happens If We Win

Bruce Cutler | May 1986

Many creative writing programs have well-defined goals, as well as the means to achieve them and judge their "professional" results. Rather than to try to re-invent the wheel, then, by going back over those questions, I want to look at the impact we are making on our institutions. For while it may not yet be true to say that creative writing programs are the most influential elements in English departments in determining their tone and orientation, in many cases we are getting close to it. And it is particularly true in state universities which have lacked well-defined graduate programs in English, or ones with declining doctoral programs, for it has been among these schools that English departments have embraced creative writing programs as a means for growth and renewal.

Our successes have been obvious, and those institutions which developed their programs early have been the envy of those which put it off. Among the benefits accruing have been the attraction of talented graduate students (for outstanding creative writing students in general have made outstanding records across the board) ; the creation of new academic courses and the filling of graduate courses other than those offered in writing (an important-and in some cases-a crucial side-benefit to the scholarly and critical course-offerings); an increase in enthusiasm and a sense of identity among both students and faculty members in English departments; and, because of readings and other public events, a return of a social life which has professional relevance. I do not underrate the last two points, as the absence of a sense of identity and a disregard for an informed social life in many English departments has been a contribution factor to what is commonly called the demoralization of the faculty.

There have been some institutions that have been able to get along without creative writing programs in this period, especially universities with well-established graduate programs as well as small liberal arts institutions with the ability to control their curriculum to the advantage of the established scholarly order. But for most of us involved with universities over the past thirty years, the advances made have not only been real but have served to convince our scholarly and critical colleagues that our programs are a vital part of our departments.

Hanging as we do on the brink of a rather considerable victory, I wouldn't let go quite yet. There are still some issues which program directors and writers who serve on the faculties of English departments should give careful attention to as we pass through what may be called The Time of Relatively Good Feelings into The Era of Winning Our Point. First: differences of esprit between writers and their colleagues. Most writers have embraced their talents with enthusiasm and dedication. But unlike the standards for those who pursue careers in scholarship or criticism, the standards for judging talent and achievement for writers--even allowing for differences of taste and approach-from the very beginning have been much more coherent and applied more insistently in their careers than comparable ones for their scholarly colleagues. The result is that no matter how difficult or obscure their circumstances, writers develop early a sense of achievement about their work and careers which is alien to many of their scholarly colleagues.

Obviously, the effect of writers' esprit should be that it rub off and raise the morale of their departments as a Whole, but in fact, the effect generated frequently has been the opposite; more like one of sour grapes. And in addition, as writers have come to offer practical suggestions about curriculum, take the lead in fighting for the interests of their programs and departments in the un iversity as a whole, and carry increased political responsibilities, they find themselves criticized for their managerial shortcomings, or their apparent desire for academic power, or any of a number of other issues. The result is that writers soon sense themselves to be deeply embedded in the academic establishment with a kind of criticism coming at them they don't like to get. There is the painful recognition that they have developed interests, interests which must be tended to, and that they have shed a youthful image of academic outsiders for one that may make them uneasy, insiders. That being the case, they must do some introspection to come to terms with just who they are.

Nothing startling in that, you might say, except for another issue which parallels it: the continuing need to kindle enthusiasm and achieve innovation both in teaching and in writing. This need pulls in just the opposite direction, apparently, to the one I have just described. Consider: no scholar expects a student at the masters level to produce work of genuine originality, but at the MFA level, we expect it. Here we have an academic situation that can sometimes cause division and tension. The orientation of scholarly and critical work is towards judiciousness-working deliberately, thinking carefully, and not being swept away by enthusiasms. We are all familiar with this orientation, and in fact many writers embody it superbly well. But others of us do not, for nowhere is it written that all of us handle the creative act as if it were a session in court, neither when we are writing nor when we are discussing creativity in class. Hunches are important to writers; intuitions are essential. Pursuing them honestly and enthusiastically towards success is what we want to do, yet at the same time, those "successes" can appear to come and go with a facility which seems to betray more inspiration than judgment, to some of our colleagues.

But to us, it is a natural part of the curriculum that we should achieve our goals in writing according to what we see as the best standards of contemporary letters as well as the best abilities we possess, including the intuitive. In this respect we are like those who teach in the performing arts; we are practitioners who know a good performance when we see one and through experience and the application of reasonable criteria we can estimate both the latent talent and the degree of development of a student. All of this is at the heart of what we do as teachers of writing and yet it is the aspect of our work which is the least understood by our English department colleagues. If we are going to pass through The Time of Relatively Good Feelings into The Era of Winning Our Point, we are going to have to do a better job of interpreting this aspect-riot explaining, since I doubt that it can be explained, but interpreting. Our successes as well as those of our students will be more meaningful, as a result.

A third issue we should consider as we pass through this period has to do with our own feelings about our place in academic life: I think we should stop feeling obliged to impress our colleagues by maintaining that one of our first priorities is training college teachers. Of course, we do train them in fact: all of our programs have graduated several, perhaps more, who have gone on successfully as college teachers of creative writing, composition, and English, yet as I think of the names of our graduates in the past eleven years, there are many others working for press and wire services, arts organizations, government agencies, computer outfits, and industries who are quite happy with themselves and their talents and making good progress. They also form a loyal and most helpful group of alumni, who have supported us all the way. The fact that they have gone into such a wide range of positions has a lot to do with the variety of their talents and the reality of the vocational marketplace as well as with the fact that "employability" was never a formal concern as far as our curriculum is concerned. Almost all our students worked as graduate teaching assistants, but along the way they learned other jobs as editors, writers, and programmers during the summers or in special projects. Why do we persist in suggesting, as we sometimes still do, that one of our first priorities is training college teachers? Perhaps because our programs have been among the last to be incorporated into English departments and somewhat defensively we have felt obliged to maintain we are helping to ensure the survival of English departments themselves by creating more English teachers-this, even after scholars have given up making similar claims , knowing as they do that while English departments will be hiring new members in the next few years, so radically has the mentality changed about higher education and the place of the humanities in it that we cannot easily predict just what kind of persons will be hired, on what terms, for how long, and to what end.

What do we stress? We should stress what we do successfully. Our first mission is to find talented persons, and then bring them into writing programs which give them occasion to develop those talents. Both aspects-the finding and the developing-are important, and they are contributions not only to our departments but to our universities as a whole. We do more good for the ideals and practices of university life in this way than we realize, and many of our colleagues outside the humanities see it clearly enough. Or, just ask the director of any graphic arts program, or theater program.

For even though we exist in English departments and humanities divisions, our programs are arts programs in all the senses of the phrase. How is any art nurtured and given strength in a society? Is it enough to leave it to newspaper reviewers, classroom teachers, and the public relations departments of publishing houses, in order to have a flourishing literature?

The growth of performance quality and audiences in the past fifty years in music, theater, and the graphic arts has been spectacular and bears a direct relationship to the professional training activities carried on at the college/conservatory level. For the most part these activities were carried on with the idea of producing the finest practitioners possible, and only secondarily with regard to any immediate job possibility. Artist-teachers knew that no matter what the result, those same students, dispersed in society, would constitute the informed audience for their arts. And as the numbers of professional orchestras, theaters, galleries, composers, and artists have grown, their work has been appreciated by those ever-increasing numbers of the public who have done professional study in one of the arts. It is that group which constitutes the informed, demanding audience which both appreciates and requires quality, thus providing the occasion for a healthier climate in the arts.

Writers-very late, but at last-are coming into a similar situation. It will take another twenty-five years to create the kind of sizable audience of readers which will make possible the literature most of us hope for, a literature that enters more fully into the national consciousness than the one we have now. But it will be worth it, and our graduates will be alongside us by then, both as the informed audience as well as practitioners.

But we get there one step at a time, and there is a great deal more to be done. Tenacity of purpose is important to us, as the goals are worth it. If we win, literary merit distinguished by a larger and more informed audience will be merit truly defined. Those who will be writing at that time can only have reason to be grateful.

And that being the case, we really should rejoice.



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